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Q&A: What Marijuana Lessons Might Oregon Learn From Washington?

One of the big stories to come out of the midterm election this week is the decision by voters to legalize recreational marijuana. The passage of Measure 91 means adults can grow, possess and sell marijuana within limits.

It may seem like a wild new frontier in state regulation. But there is some history we can look to for guidance. It comes from our neighbor to the north. Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana two years ago.

The Washington Liquor Control Board oversees the recreational pot market in the evergreen state.

Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross talked with liquor control board member Chris Marr to see what lessons Oregon might be able to learn from Washington's two year experience in pot.

Geoff Norcross:How would you characterize the work that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has before it now? Is it going to be hard stuff?

Chris Marr: It is. It’s going to be large. It’s going be complex. There is a large political subtext there. This is not creating a new industry. You’re basically inserting yourself as a player in an existing industry. This is government by initiative. That brings its own set of challenges.

Geoff Norcross:I know in Washington one problem that has cropped up is people are still relying on the medical marijuana market because it is taxed at a lower rate, and it’s therefore cheaper. That’s probably going to be the case in Oregon too. So what advice would you have about getting the tax rates right?

Chris Marr: I think there’s two questions here. The idea of harmonizing the existing medical marijuana channel, which I think everyone would acknowledge has a significant percentage of recreational users, with the regulation market is going to be a challenge. The question is how you maintain a level playing field with the recreational market and those folks that invest in it, while still maintaining safe access for legitimate medical patients.

As far as the taxation rates, we have about an effective 44 percent tax rate — much more robust than Colorado.

What we’ve said is we need to shake this market out a little bit to know what really makes sense in terms of a tax rate. But if we have a lower-cost competitor right across the border to our south, I think helps drive some of that discussion.

Geoff Norcross:Is there anything about this process that surprised you? Pitfalls maybe Oregon should be on the look out for?

Chris Marr: You probably have a billion-dollar industry going on your noses right now that most people don’t think about. I think you have to think about what industry the voters expected you to open up. In a perfect world we would have had 10 mega-growers and a network of state-owned stores.

In this state it didn’t work out that way. Quite frankly, what we heard from thousands and thousands of folks, 2,800 who ended up applying for producer licenses, if you don’t give us a way into your recreational market we will still compete with you on the outside.

That creates it’s own set of problems. Trying to license thousands of applicants is challenging in and of itself. But at the end of the day, despite the amount of time and effort it takes to roll that system out, I think it’s worthwhile. That’s the only way over time you’re going to gain market share from the illicit market.

Geoff Norcross:You’re like our big brother on all of this.

Chris Marr:(Laughing) Jokingly, I say we’re kind of like your big stoner brother who has experience in this. But quite frankly, my sense is that there will be a lot of ongoing dialogue and information exchanges moving forward.

<p>The Washington Post's&nbsp;<a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/08/05/where-americans-smoke-marijuana-the-most/" target="_blank">Wonkblog</a> ranked Oregon fourth in the nation for marijuana use. The findings were calculated from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.<br /><br /></p>

The Washington Post's Wonkblog ranked Oregon fourth in the nation for marijuana use. The findings were calculated from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Copyright 2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting